1902 Encyclopedia > Plague > Plague in the 19th Century: (2) 1853-84

(Bubonic Plague; Black Death; etc.)
(Part 13)

Plague in the 19th Century: (2) 1853-84

Since the apparent extinction of plague in Egypt in 1845, it has appeared in several points of Asia and Africa, and once in Europe.

In 1853 plague appeared in a district of western Arabia, the Asír country in North Yemen, and it is known to have occurred in the same district in 1815, as it did afterwards in 1874 and 1879. In 1874 the disease extended within four days’ march of Mecca From the scantiness of population the mortality has not been great, but it is clear that this is one of the endemic seats, of plague. [Footnote 167-4]

In June 1858 intelligence was received in Constantinople of an outbreak of disease at the small town Benghzi, in the district of Barca, province of Tripoli, North Africa, which though at first misunderstood was clearly bubonic plague. From later researches there is reason to believe that it commenced in 1856 or in 1855. The disease did not spread, and ceased in the autumn, to return with less violence in 1859, when it died out. In the autumn of 1873 it returned, but apparently came again to a spontaneous termination. At all events it has not been heard of since. [Footnote 167-5] After the epidemic of Benghazi in 1856–59, plague was next heard of in the district of Maku, in the extreme north-west of Persia in November 1863. It occurred in a scattered population, and the mortality was not absolutely large.[Footnote 167-6]

In 1867 an outbreak was reported in Mesopotamia (Irak) [Iraq], among the marshes of Hindieh bordering on the lower Euphrates ; and, as it has prevailed at intervals up to the present time in the same country, great importance attaches to its history. The epidemic began in December 1866 (or probably earlier) and ceased in June 1867. But numerous cases of non-fatal mild bubonic disease (mild plague or pestis minor) occurred both before and after the epidemic, and according to Tholozan similar cases had been observed nearly every year from 1856 to 1865. [Footnote 167-7] The next severe epidemic of plague in Irak [Iraq] began to December 1873. But facts collected by Tholozan show that pestis minor, or sporadic cases of true plague, had appeared in 1868 and subsequent years. The outbreak of 1873-74 began about 60 miles from the origin of that of 1867. It caused a much greater mortality and extended over a much wider area than that of 1867, including the towns of Kerbela and Hilleh. After a short interval it reappeared at Divanieh in December 1874, and spread over a much wider area than in the previous epidemics. The epidemic was carefully studied by Surgeon-Major Colvill. [Footnote 167-8] He estimated the mortality at 4000. The epidemic ceased in July, but broke out again early in 1876, and in this year extended northwards to Baghdad and beyond. The whole area now affected extended 250 miles from north-west to south-east, and total number of deaths was believed to be 20,000. in 1877 plague also occurred at Shuster in south-west Persia, probably conveyed by pilgrims returning from Irak [Iraq], and caused great mortality.

After its customary cessation in the autumn (a pause attributed as before to the efficiency of quarantine regulation), the epidemic began again in October 1876 , though sporadic cases occurred all the summer. The disease appeared in 1877 in other parts of Mesopotamia also with less severity than in 1876, but over a wider area, being now announced at Samara, a town 70 miles above Baghdad on the Tigris. Since then the existence of plague in Baghdad or Mesopotamia has not been announced till the year 1884, when accounts again appeared in the newspapers, and July the usual official statement occurs that the plague has been stamped out. The above account of plague in Irak [Iraq] is the most complete history of a succession of epidemics in one country which we had of late years.

To complete the history of plague in Persia it should be stated that In 1870-71 it appeared in a district of Mukri in Persian Kurdistan to the south of Lake Urumiah (far removed from the outbreak of 1863). The epidemic appears, however, to have died out in 1871, and no further accounts of plague there have been received. The district had suffered in the great epidemic of plague in Persia in 1829-35. In the winter 1876-77 a disease which appears to have been plague appeared in two villages in the extreme north of the province of Khorásán, about 25 leagues from the south-east angle of the Caspian Sea. In March 1877 plague broke out in Resht, a town of 20,000 inhabitants, in the province of Ghilan, near the Caspian Sea at its south-west angle, from which there is a certain amount of trade with Astrakhan. In 1832 a very destructive plague had carried off half the inhabitants. In 1877 the plague was very fatal. From March to September 4000 persons were calculated to have died. The disease continued till the spring of 1878. in 1877 there was a doubtful report of the same disease at Astrabad, and also in some parts near the Perso-Afghan frontier. In 1878 plague again occurred in Kurdistan in the district of So-uj-Bulak, said by Dr Tholozan to be the same as in the district of Mukri where it occurred in 1870-71. These scattered outbreaks of plague in Persian territory are the more remarkable because that country has been generally noted for its freedom from plague (as compared with Asiatic Turkey and the Levant).

It has since been known that a few cases of plague occurred in January 1877 at Baku on the west shore of the Caspian, in Russian territory. [Footnote 167-9]

The last outbreak of plague on European soil was that of 1878-79 on the banks of the Volga, which caused a panic throughout Europe. [Footnote 167-10] It is now known that in the summer of 1877 a disease prevailed in several villages in the neighourhood of Astrakhan and in the city itself, which was clearly a mild form of plague (pestis minor). It caused no deaths (or only one due to complication) and died out apparently spontaneously. An official physician, Dr Kastorky, who invested the matter for the matter for the Government, declared the disease to be identical with that prevailing in the same year at Resht in Persia ; another physician, Dr Janizky, even gave it the name of pestis nostras. In October 1878 some cases appeared in the stanitza or Cossack military settlement of Vetlanka, 130 miles from Astrakhan on the right bank of the Volga, which seem to have puzzled the physicians who first observed them, but on November 30th were recognized as being but the same mild plague as had been observed the year before near Astrakhan by Dr Döppner, chief medical officer of the Astrakhan. His report on the epidemic is the only original one we have. At the end of November [Footnote 167-11] the disease became suddenly more severe, and most of those attacked died; and from the 21st December it became still more malignant, death occurring in some cases in a few hours, and without any buboes formed. No case of recovery was known in this period. At the end of the year it rapidly declined, and in the first weeks of January still more so. The last death was on January 24. In the second half of December, when the disease had already lasted two months, cases of plague occurred in several neighbouring villages, all of an extremely malignant type, so that in some places all who were attacked died. In most of these cases the disease began with persons who had been at Vetlanka, though this was not universally established. The inhabitants of these villages, terrified at the accounts from Vetlanka, strictly isolated the sick, and thus probably checked the spread of the disease. But it evidently suffered a spontaneous decline. By the end of January there were no cases left in the district except at one village (Selitrennoye), where the last occurred on the 9th February. The total number of case in Vetlanka, out of a population of about 1700, was 417, of whom 362 died. In the other villages there were about 62 deaths from plague, and not more than two or three cases of recovery. In consequence of the alarm excited by this last appearance of plague upon European soil, most European Governments sent special commissions to the spot. The British commissioners were Surgeon-Major Colvill and the present writer, who, like all the foreign commissioners, reached the spot when the epidemic was over. With respect to the origin of this epidemic, the possibility of its having originated on the spot, as in Resht and on the Euphrates in very similar situations, is not to be denied. An attempt was made to show that the contagion was brought home by Cossacks returning from the Turkish War, but on absolutely no evidence. In the opinion of the writer the real beginning of the disease was in the year 1877, in the vicinity of Astrakhan, and the sudden development of the malignant out of a mild form of the disease is no more than has been observed in other places. The Astrakhan disease may have been imported from Resht or Baku, or may have been caused concurrently with the epidemics of these places by some cause affecting the basin of the Caspian generally. But the conditions under which these mild or miasmatic forms of plague are spread are as yet unknown.


167-4 J. N Radcliffe, Report of Local Government Board 1879–80, suppl., p. 42.

167-5 Tholozan, La Peste en Turquie dans les Temps Modernes, Paris, 1880.

167-6 J. Netten Radcliffe, Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, &c., 1875 ; also in Papers on Levantine Plague, presented to parliament, 1879, p. 7.

167-7 Tholozan, La Peste en Turquie, p. 86.

167-8 See his report cited by Radcliffe, Papers on Levantine Plague, 1879.

167-9 J. Netten Radcliffe, Reports; Tholozan, Histoire de la Peste Bubonique en Perse, Paris, 1874.

167-10 See Radcliffe, Reports, 1879–80 ; Hirsch and Sommerbrodt, Pest-Epidemic, 1879-9, in Astrachan, Berlin, 1880 ; Zuber, La Peste d’Astrakhan en 1878–9, Paris, 1880; Colvill and Payne, Report to the Lord President of the Council, 1879.

167-11 The dates are all reduced to new style.

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